Ahead in the Count

To an Athlete Dying Young

Two days ago, I found myself driving with two of my South African colleagues through the winding streets of Umlazi Township in Durban. The mood in the car was solemn. We had recently learned that another colleague of ours, Shabba, had died unexpectedly on Christmas Day from complications due to HIV/AIDS. Though he had contracted tuberculosis (an opportunistic infection commonly associated with HIV) a few months earlier and had been weakened significantly, we all thought he was on the path to recovery and maintenance after starting a new treatment plan. The news caught us by surprise and also served as a stark reminder of the powerful and abnormally deadly combination of HIV and poverty.

While driving through Umlazi, on the way to Shabba’s father’s house to help deal with funeral arrangements, the three of us talked about Shabba – his fiery personality and sense of humor, as well as his love for the game of basketball. Unlike many South Africans, even those who enjoy hoops, Shabba was a true student of the game. He was a FIBA-certified referee and a stickler for fundamentals. As a coach, his emphasis on the fundamentals combined with his passion for the game shaped and inspired many township youth to use basketball as a vehicle toward a positive life. It was not an uncommon site to see Shabba leading a group of children in a post-game ritual of jogging around the court and singing at the top of their lungs. Shabba proved to them that joy and learning could go hand in hand.

When we arrived at the house, Shabba’s father greeted us and invited us to sit down inside. Speaking softly in Zulu to my colleagues, he had the look of a man dealing with the unnatural weight of burying his own child. After a few minutes, he turned to me and tried to explain in English what he wanted me to hear. “I was an athlete myself as a youth,” he said. “I played soccer, and I know that sport gave me discipline and kept me healthy in body and mind. Shabba also drew strength from sport, from basketball. He helped young people do the same. Because of this, his strength will live on through the activity of the youth that he coached and their joy of basketball.”

Nothing will make the fact that Shabba is no longer with us any easier. His death at the age of 28 was premature to say the least; he will be missed greatly. But the words of Shabba’s father shed an important light on the importance of what he accomplished in his short life. He found a way to better the lives of hundreds of youth – to give them hope for their future. He let them know that he had made mistakes and that they should learn from those as much as they learned from his basketball tutelage. Shabba did what he could to make the world better than the one he inherited. He didn’t get as far as he or any of us would have hoped, but his body of work will live on in the strength of those that he impacted – on the court and off.

December 30, 2008 Posted by | Sports Around the World, written by Tal Alter | Leave a comment

Sayubona from South Africa

posted by Tal Alter

I am also excited to link up on a blog with such a great group of guys who care so much about providing opportunities to youth through sport that will help improve their outcomes in life. We all know from personal experience the power that sport has to capture the attention and imagination of young people, opening up a world of opportunities through potential that may not have been tapped were it not for a ball, some simple rules, a group of teammates, and a coach/mentor in whom they could trust.

I think for my first post, I should try to describe what brings me to Durban, South Africa and the work I am involved in here. Though very different from anything I’ve experience in the States, certainly in Northwest D.C., the basic premise of sports as a vehicle to teach life skills transcends culture, place, and time…

The bottom line is that being a young person in South Africa today is challenging beyond any quantifiable measure. Facing day-to-day hurdles with drugs, alcohol, early sexual activity and sexual abuse, unemployment and heading up homes that have been rendered parentless as a result of HIV and AIDS is something no child should have to face – and yet so many do here. It’s not easy to make good decisions, especially when there is a distinct lack of good role models and suitable outlets from the daily pressures children have to deal with. Through our work, PeacePlayers International (PPI – http://www.peaceplayersintl.org) is tackling these challenges head on.

The overall aim of PPI is two-fold: the first is to teach young people about HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention in an active way through specifically using the sport of basketball for social change and development. The second aim is to change perceptions and bridge the divide that exists across races and gender in post-apartheid South Africa. Although South Africa is a united country in theory; race, class and gender divides still exist and need to be addressed and worked out of society through this young generation.

PPI’s program brings together more than two thousand children from different backgrounds – Black, Colored (a distinct race group here), Indian, White… Rural, Township, and Urban. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, a shocking 25% percent of the population is infected with HIV. Despite this fact, stigma attached to the virus is so strong that people still engage in risky sexual behavior with someone they know is HIV+, then neglect to get tested to know their status, and refuse to go to the hospital to get treatment they could get FOR FREE when symptoms appear. The end result is all too obvious.

Often, young people find it awkward to approach their parents and teachers for advice on sexuality. Many of the children also come from broken or abusive homes and, as a result, lack suitable mentors to speak to them and guide them on these often sensitive issues. Subsequently, they rely on information and advice from equally confused peers, or none at all, which only aggravates the problem. So, that’s where we come in. PPI uses basketball as an alternative channel to help young people open up.

But it does not happen overnight, and that’s why basketball (sport) is so important. Our kids join our program to play basketball. When they first arrive to the basketball court, they are greeted by a young coach between the ages of 18 and 25. The coach shows an interest in them, and stays with them as long as it takes to shoot jumpers or practice cross-over dribbles. Then the kids come back for basketball, and, slowly a conversation develops. The conversation is casual – on the court, on the bus on the way to a game – but a bond is formed, as is a relationship of trust. Before too long, the kids show up as much for the continued conversation as for the basketball, and that’s when we know we can make a difference – because the child is ready to listen.

And eventually, through being mentored by role models to whom they can relate, the children who go through the program develop leadership skills, become role models in their own families and communities, and, eventually, become PPI coaches themselves. This past year, the first kids who joined our program as 10-year olds in 2001 became coaches – and no one is better equipped to serve as role models for our participants. Some more staggering statistics facing our population here in Durban… Of the 550,000 kids who will graduate high school next year, only 15% will go on to study further and work, and 85% will hit the streets with nothing to do. PPI has now trained and employed over 200 coaches.

There’s a lot more to say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me at talter@peaceplayersintl.org.

Thanks for reading!

November 13, 2008 Posted by | Overview / Background, written by Tal Alter | Leave a comment